Transportation in NWA: The laws of physics rule

by Mark Zweig ([email protected]) 834 views 

On the subject of transportation in Northwest Arkansas, those who are adults with a job will probably have to own a car here. Without one, it will be nearly impossible to get around unless you live within walking or easy cycling distance from where you work.

Those who live and work near the University of Arkansas campus may be able to function without a car. Several professor friends here don’t have cars and live close enough to campus to ride their bikes or walk to work. No doubt, many people today want to live close to where they work. In cities around the country, there’s been a huge movement back into the downtown areas. We are no exception.

But with close-in housing costing what it does these days, many moving here are surprised at the sometimes $300+ per square foot purchase prices of homes close to everything in Bentonville and Fayetteville and the resulting high rents. It’s a luxury that few but the most highly paid residents can afford.

A couple years ago, Jeff and Amy Beaver and I decided to try taking Ozark Regional Transit buses to a variety of places one might need to go. It was part of a video series they were doing to increase public awareness of both the availability of public transportation and the need to improve it.

It was an interesting day. What I discovered in the course of that experiment was that bus stops aren’t clearly marked, rarely have covered waiting areas and bus pickup schedules were both difficult to find and not kept. When we finally did get on a bus, it was well-maintained and the drivers were friendly. But to get from point A to point B was very difficult, and sometimes took hours for what would have been a five-minute car ride.

Just imagine being a working parent who has to get your kids to and from school, while you get to work and back on time using this bus system. It’s a pretty tough way to get around.

So why don’t we have efficient public transportation here? Probably the biggest reason is we don’t have high density. Without it, public transportation doesn’t work. I’ve always thought it odd how my most progressive friends are big proponents of public transportation, while at the same time advocates for vertical building height restrictions — and some of the loudest NIMBYs (not in my backyard) objecting to any new multifamily development near them.

Verticality gives you the highest density in the smallest footprint. I get a kick out of those who say “build tall buildings in north Fayetteville or east Fayetteville.” They aren’t needed there. We need them in places where people can walk to work and school. And why is it that every person (at least in Fayetteville) seems to act as if they have veto rights over any development planned?

I’ve also heard people say how great it would be if we had light rail running between Fayetteville and Bentonville. It would be great. But there are several problems. One is cost to build, which according to studies of past projects can be as high as $100 million per mile. Then there is the cost to maintain and operate, which is significant. Then there is the problem of how people get from train stations to where they ultimately need to go. Again, without much greater density, a viable light rail system couldn’t possibly pay for itself.

So the bottom line for most of us is this. A car is still the best way to get around NWA. That said, we don’t all need three-ton Suburbans or four-ton F-250s for our daily commutes. There are plenty of smaller and more economical alternatives available. However, with the quality of our drivers here being what it is (why do they refuse to move over unless passing?), and the normal 80 mph speeds most people drive on Interstate 49, there’s the safety issue of tiny commuter vehicles colliding with those weighing four times as much.

The laws of physics rule. And that’s why we have the transportation systems we have in today.

Mark Zweig is the founder of two Fayetteville-based Inc. 500/5000 companies. He is also an executive in-residence teaching entrepreneurship in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. The opinions expressed are those of the author.